September 1, 2015

A visit to Gretna and The History Wardrobe

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:14 pm by historywardrobe

Source: A visit to Gretna and The History Wardrobe


A visit to Gretna and The History Wardrobe

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:51 pm by historywardrobe

Costume & Conflict

Pack Up Your Troubles: Gretna

On Saturday I escaped the chaos of the last weekend of Edinburgh Fringe for an entirely different kind of festival, the Pack Up Your Troubles First World War festival in Gretna. I made this trip in order to see a presentation from The History Wardrobe, and unfortunately did not manage to see anything else at the festival (I wish I could have attended the Make Do & Mend session at the Devil’s Porridge Museum, but I have lined up a visit to that museum for another time! ). I did however learn a little about the history of the area beyond my minimal knowledge (via Jane Austen) of Gretna Green as a destination for quick marriages.

Gretna was known during the First World War for HM Factory which spread over 9 miles and employed 30,000 workers – who were largely female. By 1917 the…

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July 29, 2015

Power-dressing through history

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:40 pm by historywardrobe

New Look patterns 1980s (4)

1980s female work suits. The monochrome palette & broad shoulders suggest seriousness and quasi masculine impact. Cleavage, heels and sleek hosiery hint at sexuality. A difficult balance to get right at work, even now.

“One day I was doing a signing in a London bookshop and next in the queue was a lady in what, back in the eighties, was called a ‘power suit’ despite its laughable lack of titanium armour and proton guns…”

– Terry Pratchett in Meditations on Middle Earth, 2001

Hilda Rogan - Bus Conductress WW1

Hilda Rogan, WW1 bus conductor, enjoys the power and public acknowledgement conferred by a uniform

Clothes convey power

Armour has its place as powerful outwear, and there are also the obvious signifiers of power, such as crowns, capes and military insignia.  But everyday ‘civilian’ clothes have powerful messages of their own.

Sometimes this is through a literally enhanced presence: strong boots, built up shoulders, excess of fabric.  Sometimes, instead of standing out, power is conferred by homogeneity – belonging to a group all wearing the same uniform. Perhaps a suit.

Historically, certain colours and fabrics have been jealously categorised as elite-only, and therefore power-enhancing: consider the colour purple, for example, or the Sumptuary Laws limiting silks to certain ranks.

Conceal or Reveal

How much of your body clothes cover is also significant.  For example, are cultural requirements to hide the body, hair or face a form of gendered manipulation or a means of keeping power through modesty?  Or, when clothes such as corsets, cages and contoured pads are used to mould the natural form into a fashionable shape, who has the power – the fashion industry, the consumer, or the spectator?  As for etiquette, for much of human history, hats have played a crucial role in asserting power, or, when doffing a hat, offering homage to someone of higher status… or as an act of so-called chivalry.

Who’s Wearing the Trousers?

Suits You 1983 trouser suit

1983 office suit. Trousers for female leisure wear were worn by a few from the 1920s onwards; only by the 21st century were they fully ‘normal’ in all professional situations (except No. 1 dress in the military).

Historical Paris costumes (8)

A 13th-c Knight Templar: Obvious power through chainmail, cloak, Christian symbol & sword

Trousers have very strong associations with power. The Romans disdained them as fit for barbarians (outsiders) only. 18th-century gentlemen at first scorned them in favour of breeches, then followed George ‘Beau’ Brummell’s example in wearing them. By the 19th century they were firmly established as a fundamental garment for men. To wear trousers meant having freedom-of-movement, as well as the symbolic power of patriarchy. No wonder women had to fight so hard to wear them, enduring ridicule in the 1860s with Turkish trousers, then wary admiration for cycling breeches in the 1890s, and finally a long, slow integration of trousers into everyday wear. We might ask – is there ‘power’ still in skirts and dresses?  For Transgender people, how might the power dynamic change when adopting clothes weighted with such assumptions about gender?

Stay Laces 1967 girdle

Are seductive clothes a passive form of power-dressing? Here, an elasticated nylon girdle and under-wired bra from 1967

Leaving the Past Behind?

Many of our clothing choices are still based on cultural constructs from history.  In an era of fast fashion, ‘designer’ labels and creeping informality how, if at all, do we show power now?

Lucy Adlington @historywardrobe is author of Great War Fashion; also Fashion:Women in World War One, and the forthcoming book from Penguin Random House, Stitches In Time, the Story of the Clothes we Wear

She runs History Wardrobe – delightful costume-in-context presentations – and lectures extensively in the UK

Join the #csfashionhour discussion 2pm September 4th 2015

June 16, 2015

Knitting and Sewing

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:56 am by historywardrobe

A lovely first-hand account of WW2 thrift and ingenuity

A Housewife's Work

Crafts are coming back into fashion again, but rather as a hobby than a necessity. In this post, my Mum looks back to the knitting and sewing during the war and post war years.

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British Women Go To War by J.G. Priestley / P.G. Hennell

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:52 am by historywardrobe

This is a gem of a book and the colour photos, although posted, are highly inspirational


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May 8, 2015

Where Did Their Clothes Go? Textile Recycling at the Foundling Hospital

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:45 pm by historywardrobe

I always enjoy finding out more about historical recycling of textiles


The Foundling Hospital was set up to care for children whose parents were unable to support them. The first children were accepted in 1741 and it was quickly recognised that the Hospital provided a valuable public service. From 2 June 1756 to 25 March 1760 Parliament provided funds for the Hospital to accept all children presented to it. Nearly 15,000 children aged 12 months or under were accepted.

Babies entered the Hospital wearing clothes provided by their mothers and were commonly garbed in decorative printed, checked and striped gowns. Yet these garments could not be used again by the Foundlings because the Hospital required its charges to wear a uniform. Infants were dressed identically in grey, the older children wore brown. With 15,000 children entering the Hospital in the space of four years, tens of thousands of garments were collected. So where did these clothes go?

Textiles were expensive during…

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April 28, 2015

Fancy a Cuppa? Taking Tea in the Thirties

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 9:06 am by historywardrobe

1930s lime green gown and bolero jacket... and my grandmother's art deco china

1930s lime green gown and bolero jacket… and my grandmother’s art deco china

There’s so much to talk about over tea in the Thirties…

Did you see the new Clark Gable film at the pictures last night..?  Have you heard the latest about the Abdication Crisis on the wireless..?  Wouldn’t you just love to cruise across the Atlantic in the super fast ‘Queen Mary’..? 

Open the newspaper to read about weddings, coronations, invasions, Olympics… and that man Hitler.

These are modern, fast-moving times.  You might have driven your automobile to the tea shop (stopping at newly-invented zebra crossings, I hope; observing new cat’s-eyes road markings, and possibly parking in a new multi-storey car park).  The cafe table cloths might be laundered in an automatic washing machine – although boiling water poured from a height is also recommended for removing tea stains.

At least you won’t be bothered by people talking on mobile telephones.

What will you be drinking…?

Tea, of course.  Made from steeped tea leaves and served in china cups with saucers and tea spoons (one lump or two?)  Or on a hot summer’s afternoon perhaps some home-made lemonade, with enough real lemons to make you wince.  There’s coffee too.  Instant coffee that take seconds to make (caffeine-free also available).  No fancy lattes, moccachinos or expressos – just with milk or without.  All to be chased down by a cigarette or two (Good for the lungs, dontchaknow).

What will you be eating?

There are many familiar products in the 30s, from Birds Eye custard and Ovaltine to Ryvita and Bourneville chocolate.  But

A perfectly pretty pink cake from 1936

A perfectly pretty pink cake from 1936

it’s cakes which reign supreme at a 1930s tea table.  Fluffy Victoria sponges squishing layers of fruity jam and fresh cream… cherry cake, chocolate cake, short bread, gingerbread, almond biscuits and coconut pyramids, all dusted with delicate icing sugar.

Not good for the figure?  Fear not!  Marmola Anti-Fat pills promise to melt away the pounds; Beasley’s Reducing Corset controls unruly curves.  For an extra healthy look, Kolynos toothpaste whitens tea-stained teeth and Beecham’s pills soothe a sour stomach.  (And if you’re worried about being too, too thin, Beautipon amazing vegetable flesh forming paste will give you curves in all the right places.)

Need a little extra help?  Then men – strap on your Linia abdominal belt! Women – wiggle into your rubber roll-on girdle!

Delightful fashions c 1931 - not much room for cake in these long lines

Delightful fashions c 1931 – not much room for cake in these long lines

Most importantly: what will you wear to tea?

Ah, for that information you’ll need to see a performance of the History Wardrobe presentation Tea Gowns & Tea Time with a tempting display of vintage fashions and a simply smashing insight into taking tea 30s-style.

For more details on events near you, see the History Wardrobe diary.  And bon appetit!

April 5, 2015

V.E. Day 70th Anniversary – Memories From My Family’s Photo Album (Kent & Netherlands)

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:05 pm by historywardrobe

A very special and very personal VE day remembrance

Come Step Back In Time

V. E. Day commemorative silk scarf. Private collection. ©Come Step Back In Time V. E. Day commemorative silk scarf from 1945. Private collection. ©Come Step Back In Time


Germany surrendered on 7th May, 1945, and the next day was declared V.E. (Victory in Europe) Day, ending World War Two in Europe. However, for many servicemen and their families, May 1945 was not their war’s end. The Allies were still at war with Japan but on the 6th and 9th August, 1945, the United States dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered, World War Two was officially at an end.

V.E. Day commemorative pins, 1945. Private collection. ©Come Step Back In Time V.E. Day commemorative pins, 1945. Private collection. ©Come Step Back In Time

In 2015, Britain will be marking the 70th anniversary of V.E. Day Victory in Europe and from Friday 8th May 2015 there will be a three-day weekend of commemorative events across the country. At 3pm on 8th May, national two-minute silence will mark the…

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February 19, 2015

Original, Revival, or Costume?

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:12 pm by historywardrobe

Every costume historian – professional or enthusiast – faces the challenge of distinguishing real from replica, fact from fantasy. This great blog post flags up some of the deceptively authentic-seeming gowns doing the rounds of Pinterest as originals

Threading Through Time

'Superman Returns' Superman Returns, Brandon Routh costume

You’d think it would be easy to recognize a true costume when you see one, like our famous friend here. However, in the world of historical dress/costuming it’s not so clear-cut. And when you’re in the process of learning the basics, it’s even more frustrating.

Sure, you can find just about anything online, but its mere presence is irrelevant to the accuracy of the information tacked onto it. When I make a mistake and mess up my knowledge base it’s my problem. When I pass that mistake along it becomes a problem for a lot of other people. And I don’t like that. So how on earth can one figure it out?

Sometimes you get lucky and the item at hand is so well known that it can’t be foisted off as anything other than a costume.

Rose's gown in 'Titanic'. Rose’s gown in ‘Titanic’.

Other times it’s just…

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February 7, 2015

Victorian Women on the Railways

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 11:19 am by historywardrobe

One of my favourite work ‘tasks’ is reading primary sources – essentially, scouring period newspapers, magazines, diaries and letters for insights and revelations.

For no accountable reason my family (Midlands mining/textile background) kept a bound volume of the sensationalist newspaper The Days Doings – Here and There, from 1870-1874.  I loved turning the stiff pages as a child and seeing women being savaged by circus lions; men blown sky high in factory explosions; actresses ‘surprised’ in their boudoirs by moustachioed strangers… All very gory or titillating by turns, and yet quite tastefully depicted.

The newspaper is disgracefully racist – a facet which was sadly lost on me as a child, but which spoils the re-reading as an adult.  In contrast to this casual and demeaning discrimination, it is often quite feminist (despite recurrent images of slender female ankles and impossibly dainty button boots.)    For example, journalists report positively on suffrage campaigning in New York and London.  In May 1872 they note with pride the employment of a female engine driver in an unspecified American Western state.  Naturally, they must then resort to drooling over her alleged appearance:

Days Doings 1870s_0018“The womanly engineer is a blonde, a genuine blonde, with wavy hair and the brightest and bluest eyes.”

However, much emphasis is placed on the fact that she is “thoroughly efficient in her duties” and “gifted with a very considerable degree of physical strength – having an arm which can pull with vigour, and a frame which can stand a certain amount of shaking.”  Ultimately the railway company and the reporters conclude:

“the experiment and the engineer work well, and the lady and the company, and the public are satisfied.”

We can be less than satisfied with the image accompanying the article.  For once the female’s ankles are hidden, but it is extremely unlikely anyone would drive a locomotive in fashionable hat, low-cut bodice and swirling skirts.

Now I’m speculating – is there, somewhere in the States – a genuine image of this pioneer railway worker?

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